Oxford’s Libraries

Anyone who has spent five minutes in Oxford knows about the Bodleian Library, but the university actually brims over with dozens of libraries, each with its own charms (admittedly, some more than others). The following are the libraries I tend to use most in the course of my various research tangents. (The unfortunate lack of decent interior pictures of my own is due to library regulations against wandering around like a tourist snapping shots of the ceiling.)

The Beautiful Bodleian

Old Bodleian Library (‘the Bod’) – This bastion of university scholarship dates back to the early seventeenth-century and has many charms, including stained glass roundels in the windows, a stunning view over Radcliffe Square on one side and the Clarendon Building on the other, and the provision of bottled ink at the reference desk for the refilling of one’s fountain pen (‘Readers are reminded that ink is not for use at the reading room desks!’). The Old Schools Quad, with its Tower of Orders, is also quite something on a sunny day!

Duke Humfrey’s Library – Technically within the Bodleian, but as the University’s oldest reading room—its earliest bits go back to the fifteenth century—it deserves its own entry. Go here if you’re craving a slightly fusty atmosphere of parchment, leather, and scholarship (which incidentally the Bodleian Shop claims to have distilled into a candle). Also an excellent place for university members to take visitors, though they must be registered in advance at Admissions and lectured sternly about the dire consequences of going past the gate or setting foot in any other reading rooms. Guided tours for tourists are also available.

Arts End of the Duke Humphrey’s Library.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: by David Iliff, license CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Weston Library – Inside the shell of what used to be known as the New Bodleian, the Weston has been recently renovated and now hosts a café and free public exhibitions downstairs (allowing the thrill of ‘popping in’ to have a look at their Magna Carta on one’s way past) and various reading rooms upstairs. Sources on sources (manuscript catalogues, secondary sources on medieval sermons, quodlibets, commentaries, etc.) are mostly housed in a beautifully glassed-in four-sided gallery that looks down on the main court below (so that tourists look up at you quizzically, trying to figure out how you got there). If you want to get your hands on a manuscript, it has to be requested for reading in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room, a lovely, long room with suitably wooden-ceilinged and hushed atmosphere. (Like the Duke, though, you have to check all bags into lockers before entering, and pens are forbidden.)

There’s a very interesting article about the Weston’s place in the future of libraries here.

Radcliffe Camera (‘Rad Cam’)  – Probably my favourite building in Oxford, at least if the 207 photos I have of the outside are anything to go by, and not just because it houses the History Faculty Library. Dorothy L. Sayers describes it in Gaudy Night as sleeping ‘like a cat in the sunshine’ and certainly a shaft of sunshine through Radcliffe Square setting that Cotswold stone aglow is enough to make me catch my breath (and reach for my camera) every single time. I tend to prefer the cozy cavern of the Lower Cam to the airier reaches of the Upper Cam and Gallery, but both tend to get packed tight with undergraduates during term.

The Taylorian – Formally ‘the Taylor Institution Library’, housing European languages and literature, the Taylorian is almost certainly the most higgledy-piggledy of the Oxford libraries—even the library website admits it’s a ‘complicated building’. Situated in the

Taylorian Main Reading Room

back-end of the Neo-Classical building that also houses the Ashmolean Museum, it’s an endearing warren of reading rooms and book stacks that none of them look a thing like each other. Shelf marks have uncertain meaning, and one spends most of one’s time wandering about stumbling onto new staircases intersecting at right angles and leading off into new directions. Still, I have fond memories of desperately writing my Twelfth Century Renaissance paper on Anglo-Norman texts deep in its stacks last Easter Vacation, and it does have a simply gorgeous reading room, complete with gallery, at its centre.

Law Library – Less picturesque than many of Oxford’s libraries, but cavernously empty during the vacations, and at the moment, about 45 seconds from my front door. I have less fond memories of sitting here trying to untangle Roman law glosses …

College libraries vary from medieval Old Libraries to modern fluorescent-lit study rooms, and are generally off limits, unless by prior appointment, to non-college members. As a medievalist, the best way to tour the college libraries is therefore to find a book or manuscript in a college library not available in the University libraries and request to view it there. If you’re really lucky, a college librarian might give you a tour.


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